Monday, March 4, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Seven

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Seven of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. This week we're covering Chapter Seven, "Putting the Future on Sale: The Economics of Instant Gratification."

Decluttering has lost some of its lustre, but I'm continuing to do it, because I'm committed and I know its worth it. Here's a cabinet I tackled over a period of three days last week:

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There's extra space in there now--what a concept!!

McGonigal opens Chapter 7 with an interesting story (pp. 156-157). In 2007 a study was published that compared how much self control humans and chimps have. The human or chimp subject was presented with two treats (grapes for the chimps, and various bite-sized snack foods for humans.) They were allowed to eat those two treats right away, or they could have six treats if they waited just two minutes.

Chimps are self-controlled creatures! Seventy-two percent of them waited for the larger reward (six treats.) But guess how many humans waited? Only 19 percent! And they were students from Harvard, people we'd expect to have a lot of self-control! I'm going to let Sonnet explain this phenomenon as she introduces the chapter to us.

It’s time for Chapter Seven, and we’re going Back to the Future! (That was a great movie, by the way.) The theme of this chapter is all about how we view our future: incorrectly. So, how is that screwing up our willpower?

The basic problem is this: we have this huge disconnect between our experience of now and our ideas about what the future might be. The future just doesn’t seem real to us, it is hard to imagine. When we think about our future, even our future 20 minutes from now, we like to predict that we’re going to have more free time, and more money, and more ability to resist cheesecake. We like to think the world will be a better and easier place free of temptation or fears or obnoxious bosses or jeans that are too tight. And in this magical world, our future self (who is amazingly NOT us) will conquer all this stuff that’s been piling up. So let’s let her deal with it. Sound good?

This was one of the most interesting concepts to me in Chapter Seven. We think of our future selves as different people entirely! McGonigal calls your future self You 2.0. "You 2.0 is future you," she writes. "Future you is the person you imagine when you wonder whether you should clean the closet today or leave it to your future self. Future you is the person who will be much more enthusiastic about exercising than you are right now.... We think about our fututre selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage" (pp. 171-172).

This was so eye-opening to me. (I keep saying that, don't I?!) I know I have fallen into this trap more times than I can count. I see a cluttered spot and know that someday, future me will take care of it. I won't be so busy in the future, or I'll be more motivated. In reading this book for the first time a couple of months ago, I faced the truth: My house was becoming more and more cluttered, because present me never turned into the idealized version of future me. And if I want a house that is more pleasant to live in, present me has to step in and take responsibility.

McGonigal does a great job giving options for how to motivate our present selves to do what we've always expected our future selves to do. Sonnet does a great job explaining these techniques.

One of the suggestions in this chapter is called precommitting, and is basically comes down to creating situations ahead of time that build in carrots and sticks for your willpower goal. Such as, for example, taking bets on whether or not you will lose weight. Or, say, setting up a plan to donate money to a charity you find repellant every time you don’t meet your goals. You plan ahead to make life easier for your future self to do the right thing when temptation hits. I’m sure this is really motivating for some people. You know what it makes me feel? Stress. Big time stress, almost panic-level stress. I could feel my heart racing and my breath coming faster just reading about it. And stress makes me want to run for comfort, which makes me want to act impulsively, which makes me want to do things like curl up on the couch with a pint of ice cream and do nothing until it goes away. There is no way this is going to work for me. Even the thought makes me want to avoid any activity associated with this ‘motivator.’ So… next.

Clearly precommitment isn't a strategy that works for everyone! But one of McGonigal's precommitment suggestions hit home with me. "Put your alarm clock across the room so you'll have to get out of bed to turn it off" (p. 169). While decluttering is still my primary willpower challenge, I have had a strong desire lately to get back on track with getting up early so I can spend quiet time alone with God. This is a mini-challenge I want to take on! So last night I put my alarm on the far side of my bedside table, with books and a lamp in between me and it. I had to get out of bed to reach it.

But I needed more motivation than that. It's far too easy to get back in bed! So I also followed McGonigal's advice to "make immediate gratification more painful if you give in" (p. 169). I decided that if I don't get up on time, I'll have to take a day off Facebook. I really don't want to do that! Maybe that's a problem in and of itself, but for now, it's a motivator for me. I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, and I'm excited to see if these techniques continue to work. But let's get back to Sonnet, who needed to find a technique that works for her!

An interesting one suggested was the “wait ten minutes” strategy. The idea is, if you are faced with an ‘I Won’t’ willpower challenge (such as having a cigarette or eating a doughnut) tell yourself you can have it… after you wait 10 minutes. If you place the temptation into the future, alongside the concept of the future rewards, you take away the short-term impulse appeal and are able to manage it much better. For I Won’t challenges, I think this has enormous potential. I can see myself using this one quite often when I have the impulse to binge eat when I am angry or upset.

On the other hand. The book also claims you can use this for I Will challenges by turning it around, saying “do X for 10 minutes, then you can quit.” So let me be honest. I procrastinated on writing this summary like a crazy woman. I read the chapter on Monday and I am writing this almost a full week later, late Sunday night. I messed around doing anything but writing all day today. I finally tried the “do it for 10 minutes” trick to see if I could get it done, and you know what happened? Nothing. Not a thing. I didn’t write a single word. I wasn’t motivated at all by it. I suppose because I like writing, it’s not that I didn’t want to do it. I was fine with doing it. I just felt like taking the short term reward more. So for I Will challenges, at least for me? No dice.

What finally did motivate me, for the record, was using the dopamine reward trick. I made a large mug of my favorite tea, got a small bowl of chocolate eggs, and set both on my work desk by my laptop. There. I can have them if I am writing, I told myself. Sold! It wasn’t even a difficult decision, I was happy to get cozy in my office and get to work. So, now I know what motivates me!

I love that this book gives so many suggestions--so when one doesn't make sense, we can find another that does! And it's interesting to me is that Sonnet and I have both managed to find the motivation, every single week, to read this book and write the blog posts--even if we had to fight for that motivation. This is the type of thing I tend to have good intentions for, but I often don't follow through.

So why have Sonnet and I kept up with this? Because for the last seven weeks, we've both followed another of McGonigal's suggestions from this chapter: Find someone who will support you and hold you accountable to your goals. Honestly, I've procrastinated on these blog posts every single week. The earliest I've written any of my Monday posts has been Sunday--and a couple of my "Monday" posts have been written later in the week! Sonnet admits she procrastinated this week too.

But we've both kept up with it, because we are depending on each other. I think this is a huge key! Ann and I usually have our kids learn about one particular topic each week (in addition to our regular schoolwork), and we do lapbook projects on those topics most weeks. Why do I make sure my kids keep up with it? Because I know that we'll be getting together with Ann so all the kids can present their projects. Knowing someone else is counting on me is huge motivation!

Back to Sonnet...

Alright, other good ideas for connecting with the nebulous, intangible future do come up in this chapter. If we can really grasp that the ‘future self’ is going to be our self, the same person instead of a stranger, then we are more likely to make wise long term decisions. The chapter has some great suggestions for reconciling the two that are simple, effective, and even fun. Think about what you’re going to be doing next week. Just next week. Grocery shopping? Going to the board meeting? Really picture yourself in those situations. That’s it – those few moments of imagery will cause you to think twice about putting off cleaning the carpets until next week. You can write a letter to your future self. There are even services who will mail or email them to you.

Note from Beth: McGonigal suggests the site for sending an email to yourself in the future. Here is the one I am sending to myself in one year:

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Talking about your hopes and dreams, deciding what you think your future self would thank your present self for – those concepts make the future real. Finally, taking the time to daydream about possibilities, imagining future outcomes from your choices, also solidifies the future. Who is next year’s best possible you? Who is next year’s you who is struggling because of bad decisions? Thinking through the ins and outs of what your actions mean leads to taking care of yourself long term, and being more mindful of your choices over time instead of in the right now.

To me, I think this is really a key part of willpower. This is what it is all about: making the future as valuable as the present. We’re not wired to think that way, but if we can, planning ahead pays off in big ways.

Thinking in specific ways about future me has been an important part of my decluttering willpower challenge. I'm a real estate agent. When I am helping a client prepare their home for sale, I hire a home stager to come and give them specific suggestions to get the house ready. So many times, I've thought to myself, "Whew, whenever we decide to sell this house, I'm going to have a lot of work to do, getting this place decluttered." Not wanting to deal with that stressful concept, I've shoved the thought aside, figuring that future me would find a way to handle it!

Now, I think about how good it will feel if and when we want to get our house ready for sale. Because I'm committed to continuing to declutter, my closets and drawers will already look good! I'll need to do some prep work, of course, but it won't be so overwhelming. My home stager will come in and compliment me on my bathroom countertop already looking nice (instead of being crammed full of bottles and things as it was a few weeks ago.) And I know that on all the days in between today and that day, I will enjoy my home more because I'm making it a more peaceful and pleasant place to live! I'm thinking about what future me wants, and it's making present me happier too!

If you're trying to find motivation to tackle a willpower challenge, use some of the techniques from this chapter to connect with your future self. Our future selves ARE US! When we make that connection, we can start making more decisions that will benefit us in the long run!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

1 comment:

Epic Thread said...

Wow, that story about the chimps and humans is pretty fascinating.
Jillian -